Code Blue

By Skolnick, Jerome H. | The American Prospect, March 27, 2000 | Go to article overview

Code Blue


Skolnick, Jerome H., The American Prospect


PROSECUTING POLICE BRUTALITY REQUIRES PENETRATING THE BLUE WALL OF SILENCE.

Police work in an unpredictable, sometimes violent, sometimes deadly environment. The potential danger of their workplace and their authority to use force to me resistance make it unsurprising that police actions can have brutal, even fatal, consequences--sometimes for innocent people, as Amadou Diallo's family knows all too well. It's also not surprising that, to cope with such violence and danger, police have developed a very dose-knit culture that has its own set of norms. A policeman understands that his fellow officers might, in the heat of the moment, do things that they wouldn't want brought to light later on. Maybe they administered a "tune-up" to teach compliance to a suspect. Or maybe they visited a "beat wife" or prostitute, while on duty. A cop learns to back up the stories colleagues tell to superiors and investigators; in turn, he is confident colleagues will back him up.

This makes it very hard to investigate and prosecute cases of police misconduct. It may even encourage misconduct. Officers in the New York City Police Department's 70th precinct did not protest when they saw Abner Louima being marched around the station house with his pants down to his ankles. Officer Justin Volpe proudly showed off the results of his sadistic anal assault. He waved a broken broomstick stained with blood and feces around his fellow officers to see, even bragging to Sergeant Kenneth Wernick that "I took a man down tonight." Yet no police officer came forward that night to report Volpe. Why not?

"Cops don't tell on cops," explained Officer Bernard Cawley in his testimony before the 1993 Mollen Commission, which investigated various cases involving police corruption:

   And if they did tell on them, just say if a cop decided to tell on me, his
   career's ruined. He's going to be labeled as a rat. So if he's got 15 more
   years to go on the job, he's going to be miserable because it follows you
   wherever you go. And he could be in a precinct--he's going to have nobody
   to work with. And chances are if it comes down to it, they're going to let
   him get hurt.

This is the famous "blue wall of silence," and it helps explain how it is that to the sodomizing of Abner Louima, the 56 blows inflicted upon Rodney King, and the perjury of Detective Mark Fuhrman we must now add both the growing corruption scandal in the Los Angeles Police Department, the 41 bullets pumped into Amadou Diallo, and the conspiracy to obstruct justice of three officers found guilty of making up a story to cover up the role of one of them--Charles Schwarz--in the bathroom attack on Abner Louima. The LAPD corruption scandal--which includes allegations of shooting, beating, stealing and selling drugs, evidence planting, false arrests, and perjury--was fueled by the testimony of ex-LAPD antigang Officer Rafael Perez, who is cooperating with authorities to obtain a lighter sentence for his theft of cocaine placed in evidence. Since September 1999, when the scandal broke, more than 20 police officers have been relieved of duty, forced to quit, or fired. Dozens of criminal convictions have been overturned because of perjured testimony, and every day seems to bring new and increasingly damaging revelations. And while police in the Diallo trial were acquitted by a responsible jury, the fact that the defendants didn't come forward with their stories until the trial led some critics to suspect that the cops had used this time to construct a narrative relieving themselves of criminal responsibility. After all, the only witness who could contradict their account was no longer alive.

POLICING POLICE BRUTALITY

In its colloquial sense, the term "police brutality" suggests that police are deliberately teaching the recipient a lesson of compliance not sanctioned by any legitimate legal authority. Except in instances like Louima's, where the victim's injuries are difficult to cover up, or like Rodney King's, when a bystander videotapes the beating, cases of police brutality in which the victim is a drug dealer, or is on parole or probation, rarely come to public attention. …

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